Modern Asian Studies


‘Deindustrialization’ Revisited: The Handloom Weavers of the Central Provinces of India, c. 1800–1947

Peter Harnettya1

a1 University of British Columbia

When Marx in 1853 denounced the exploitation of India under British rule and wrote of ‘The British intruder who broke up the Indian handloom’ he laid the foundation for an economic critique which has endured to the present day. In the twentieth century, the fate of the Indian handloom weaver has been at the center of the controversy over the concept of the ‘deindustrialization’ of India on which there is now a substantial body of literature. Did the handloom industry collapse in face of competition from manufactured British imports as proponents of this thesis contend? Or were the handloom weavers able to survive the competition and at least retain (and, as has recently been argued, perhaps even improve) their position, as demand for cloth rose with rising per capita income, the fall in cloth prices was offset by the cheaper price of machine-spun yarn, and the handloom weavers diversified into higher-valued products and adopted new technologies? This paper is intended as a further contribution to this debate. It examines what happened to the handloom industry in one part of India (the region that from 1861 was called the Central Provinces) over a period of roughly one hundred and fifty years. It is in four parts. The first part studies the changes that occurred in the nineteenth century as British power spread throughout the subcontinent. This is the period when deindustrialization is said to have occurred to a significant extent.